Military Policy

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Military Policy

The scope of military policy

The elements of military policy

The making of military policy


Military policy consists of those activities of a government which are primarily concerned with its armed forces. Military policy is thus defined in terms of its scope rather than its purpose. In Western nations reference is frequently made to “defense policy” and “national security policy.” These terms define policy in terms of purpose—“defense” or “national security”—rather than in terms of scope. For this reason, they are less useful for research. In some states, defense and/or national security may not be the principal purpose of military policy: the armed forces may be designed for aggression rather than for defense or internal security and economic development, or they may be used to minimize the burden on the domestic economy rather than to maximize national security. In modern states, moreover, the scope of defense policy and national security policy is much broader than the scope of military policy. Diplomacy, economic mobilization, economic warfare, foreign economic assistance, political warfare, intelligence, and propaganda—all may be directed toward national security objectives, but they are not military policy. Military policy is, instead, a narrower field of governmental activity comparable to agricultural policy, labor policy, education policy, or tax policy.

Military policy differs from most other substantive policy areas in that it straddles the line between domestic policy and foreign policy. Domestic policy consists of those activities of a government which affect significantly the allocation of values among groups within its society; foreign policy consists of those activities of a government which affect significantly the allocation of values between it and other governments. Particular substantive policies may affect the allocation of values both within a society and between societies, but typically they have their primary impact in one field or the other. Foreign economic assistance affects the domestic allocation but has its primary impact on the international allocation. Agricultural subsidies affect the international allocation but have their primary impact domestically. Military policy, however, drastically affects the allocation of values both within the society and between societies.

The scope of military policy

Military policy can be divided generally into two broad categories: strategy and structure. Strategy concerns the units and uses of force; it is military policy viewed from the foreign-policy perspective. Strategy itself involves two broad types of issues. Program issues deal with the strength of the military forces, their composition and readiness, and the number, type, and rate of development of their weapons. Use issues deal with the deployment, commitment, and employment of military forces, and are manifested in alliances, war plans, declarations of war, force movements, and the like. A strategic concept identifies a particular need and implicitly or explicitly prescribes policies on the uses, strengths, and weapons of the armed services.

The structural side of military policy is its domestic component and deals with the acquisition and organization of the resources which are drawn from society and which go into the units and uses of force. Structural policy subsumes: budgetary policy, concerning the size and distribution of funds made available to the armed services; man-power policy, concerning the procurement, retention, pay, and working conditions of members of the armed services; procurement policy, concerning the acquisition and distribution of supplies to the military forces; and organizational policy, concerning the methods and forms by which the military forces are organized and administered.

Analytically these various elements of military policy are distinct. In actual practice, of course, any major decision in military policy involves a combination of many of them. The terms in which the decision is initially defined, however, often reflect the purposes which it is designed to realize. Decisions designed primarily to influence the international environment are formulated initially in strategic terms and must then be translated into structural policies. Conversely, decisions primarily designed to affect the allocation of domestic values are usually first formulated in structural terms, and their strategic implications are calculated later. For example, a decision to reduce the military budget is likely to be prompted by a concern with domestic factors: fear of the inflationary effects of high military spending, the desire to expand domestic welfare programs, concern over the undue influence of the military on the economy and in society, or the desire to balance the budget and reduce taxes. The reduction in military spending will require the elimination of some programs and forces and the reshaping of others. These changes will have implications for war plans and deployments, and they may make it difficult or impossible for the state to maintain its existing commitments in world politics. Hence, alliances may have to be negotiated, and what began as an effort to achieve certain domestic economic goals through the mediation of military policy comes to have a major impact on foreign relations. Conversely, a change in foreign policy, such as the assumption of a commitment to aid another state, may require increases and changes in military forces and programs and war plans which will eventually have their impact on military manpower and material procurement, which, in turn, may significantly redistribute goods and services in the domestic economy.

In theory the elements of domestic policy, foreign policy, and military policy should be congruent. In actual practice, of course, they never are. The purposes and goals of policies are always changing and always conflicting. If there are not major conflicts of purpose, however, the policies can be said to be in equilibrium. Periods of disequilibrium are typically periods following major changes in the domestic or international environments of a state. In some instances, changes in one environment and concomitant changes in foreign policy or domestic policy may not be transmitted into changes in military policy. In this event, the different elements may continue to operate at cross purposes for a long period of time. In some circumstances, such as France in the 1930s, such a disjunction between military policy and foreign policy may lead to disaster.

The elements of military policy

Strategy—programs and forces

Strategic programs deal with the over-all size, the weapons, and the composition of the military forces. The key issues normally concern the “mix” or relative strength and importance of different types of forces: land, sea, and air forces; offensive and defensive forces; active and reserve forces. After World War n, in the United States and in other major powers these traditional categories began to lose their significance. Increasingly, American military policy was concerned with the allocation of resources among strategic deterrent forces, continental defense forces, and general purpose or limited-war forces. Superimposed on these issues was the broader issue of the relative stress which should be placed on nuclear forces and conventional forces. In general, it is possible to analyze a country’s policies on strategic programs in terms of the concepts of “strategic pluralism” and “strategic monism” (see Huntington 1954). A pluralistic strategy, such as that followed by the United States between 1950 and 1953 and after 1961, involves the maintenance of a variety of military forces so as to be able to make graduated and appropriate responses to different types of aggression and to serve a variety of foreign-policy objectives. Strategic pluralism in programs is usually accompanied by higher military budgets and a more restrained and “defensive” foreign policy. Strategic monism, on the other hand, involves primary emphasis on one particular type of military force (for example, strategic nuclear forces) which is well designed to serve certain foreign-policy objectives but not others. Consequently, strategic monism usually means a lower level of military spending, but it also requires a more active and positive foreign policy that attempts to prevent through diplomacy the appearance of challenges which the military forces of the state are not equipped to handle.

Major changes in a country’s strategic programs occur only rarely and usually in combination with major changes in its foreign policy and domestic environments. Examples of such changes are the German decision in the late nineteenth century to create a sizable navy, the American decision in the 1950s to create a military system for the defense of North America against nuclear attack, and the Chinese decision in the mid-1950s to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. At a lower level, technological developments may lead to the innovation of new weapons without changes in major strategic purposes. Thus, between 1955 and 1965 the United States substantially changed the principal element in the weapons “mix” of its strategic deterrent forces from long-range bombers to intercontinental missiles. Weapons innovation is a continuing concern for all nations involved in prolonged international rivalries or arms races. In such situations the weaker power almost always has an interest in introducing new weapons, unless it thinks that such innovation will provoke the stronger power to an immediate attack. The stronger power, on the other hand, has a vested interest in the current level of weapons but must be prepared either to respond quickly to weapons innovation by the weaker power or to take the initiative in such innovation and thus in effect hasten the obsolescence of its existing superior weapons system.

Strategy—uses of force

A government can use or plan to use its military forces against another government in three ways (see Huntington 1961a, pp. 430–431). First, it can take the initiative in using force to secure some foreign-policy objective, such as the acquisition of territory or economic concessions. Second, it can use force responsively to counter or to reply to the initial use of force by another government. Third, it can use force as a deterrent in an effort to convince another government that it should not take some action. Any particular military action may, of course, serve all three purposes, but generally the strategy of a government gives primacy to one use. Have-not powers typically take the initiative in using force; status quo powers usually act responsively or deterrently. During much of its history the United States either took the initiative in the use of force, as in 1812 and 1898, or responded to the use of force by other governments, as in World War I. Since World War II, however, American military forces have been used primarily for deterrent purposes, although where deterrence has failed they have been used responsively (as in Korea in 1950) and in some cases initially (as in the Dominican Republic in 1965).

The uses of force are often analyzed in terms of the spectrum of violence. At one extreme is all-out war with thermonuclear weapons. At the other extreme are the terrorism and subversion of “sublimited” war and “wars of national liberation.” In between are such forms of violence as guerrilla warfare, limited conventional war (restricted in geographical area, weapons, targets, or goals), general conventional war, tactical nuclear war, and limited nuclear war. At one time American thinking on war tended to hold that all war must be all-out war for total victory. During the twenty years after World War n, however, the American government became accustomed to the graduated use of force and came to accept the Clausewitzian dictum that political goals must determine the nature and the extent of the use of force in war as well as in peace. A recurring issue in military policy concerns the extent to which the use of force at any one level in the spectrum of violence is likely to escalate to higher levels in the spectrum. Escalation is most likely when one side appears about to suffer a total defeat at the lower level of violence. Communist China intervened in the Korean War in the fall of 1950 when North Korea was almost totally defeated; the United States expanded its military action in Vietnam in the winter of 1964–1965 when it seemed probable that the Saigon government would be defeated. The most important step in the escalation of a conflict would, of course, be the shift from conventional to nuclear weapons. While other forms of escalation may be gradual and difficult to identify clearly, this shift would be a dramatic qualitative change in the nature of the conflict.

A preventive war occurs when a government initiates hostilities because it is convinced that war is inevitable later and that it would then be fought under less favorable conditions than it would be if initiated immediately. A pre-emptive attack is an attack designed to forestall or to blunt an enemy attack already in the process of preparation and launching. Thus, a country could plan to launch a preventive attack against another country and at the same time be the target of a pre-emptive attack from its enemy.

After World War n, the development of nuclear weapons and of high-speed, long-range delivery capabilities brought to the fore new issues in the use of military force by the major powers. The crucial factors were the relative size and vulnerability of each side’s strategic force. If both sides have relatively vulnerable strategic forces, in a crisis each will be under considerable pressure to launch a “first strike” and to destroy the other side’s strategic force before it can attack. This is a situation of maximum instability. If one or both sides have relatively invulnerable strategic forces (as a result of concealment, dispersion, mobility, or sheer numbers), the incentive to launch a first strike is much less. The “balance of terror” is thus more stable when each side is capable of absorbing a first strike and then responding with an attack capable of dealing the other side unacceptable damage. These strategic issues are frequently formulated in terms of a choice between a counterforce and countervalue strategy. In a counter-force strategy the enemy’s military forces are the principal target of the nuclear strike; in a counter-value (or countercity) strategy its population centers are the principal target. The deterrence of military action may also be achieved through various combinations of diplomatic and military means. A defensive military alliance is a classic means of communicating the intention of one state to use force to protect another state. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is probably the most notable example of such an alliance in the mid-twentieth century. Deterrent intentions may also be communicated through formal or informal statements by government officials and by the deployment and maneuvering of military forces. The success of such deterrent moves depends upon the ability of the deterring state (a) to identify clearly the action which it wishes to deter;(b) to convince the potential military actor of its intention to respond if the identified action occurs; and (c) to suggest to the potential actor that a response will impose unacceptable costs upon the actor.


At its broadest level, manpower policy involves the nature of the military manpower procurement system. Four principal systems have been used by modern states: (1) a citizen militia (Israel, Switzerland), in which all those qualified serve a large part of their lives in the citizen reserve forces, which form the bulk of the country’s military strength; (2) universal military service (France, the Soviet Union), in which all qualified men serve a short period (usually two or three years) in the active forces and then a longer period in the reserves; (3) volunteer service (Great Britain after 1960, Canada), in which efforts are made to recruit long-service professionals for the active forces; and (4) selective service (United States, Federal Republic of Germany), in which compulsory service typically for a two-year period is required of certain classes of young men, but liberal exemptions and deferments are granted, so that service is far from universal.

In addition to choice among these general systems, manpower policy concerns the recruitment, retention, pay, working conditions, promotion, education, training, and retirement of both officers and enlisted men. Among the more frequently debated issues of manpower policy are the following: To what extent should officers be recruited from special military schools, from civilian schools and colleges, or from enlisted ranks? What should be the criteria for promotion of officers—seniority, command ability, intellectual qualities? What types of education and training should officers and enlisted men receive during their military service? To what extent should military pay equal the pay for comparable work in civilian life?


Procurement and materiel policies concern the methods by which the military services acquire weapons and installations. A recurring issue is to what extent the military establishment should itself produce weapons within government-owned arsenals and to what extent it should procure them from private companies. If private procurement is preferred, to what extent is it desirable or possible to rely on competitive bidding as against negotiated bids? What policies should be followed with respect to maintaining production lines in existence on a stand-by basis: should a broad or a narrow “mobilization base” be maintained? Closely related to procurement are policies on the research and development of new weapons. To what extent should new weapons be developed in response to a previously determined “military requirement” or need for such a weapon? Or to what extent should scientists and technicians be encouraged to pursue broad-gauged research along the most promising scientific lines, with the expectation that these advances may lead to new weapons for which new appropriate uses could be found? A related issue concerns the extent to which weapons innovation is furthered by competition among several concerns or laboratories, each following a somewhat different path in attempting to develop a weapon to meet a military need. Or would weapons development be just as rapid and less costly if this duplication of effort were avoided and, at an early stage in the research, all resources were concentrated upon one approach to the problem?


The key issues of military organization involve command and control, on the one hand, and mission and purpose, on the other. Both issues come together in the problem of “unification,” or centralization, versus decentralization, a problem which continually troubled the major powers after World War n. In most countries the tendency was toward more and more centralized direction and control over the military forces. In the United States and Great Britain the previously separate services were brought within the framework of a single cabinet-level department. At the same time, in the United States in particular, the services were increasingly relegated to supporting rather than to combat roles. The principal combat units of the military establishment came to consist of the functional commands, which typically include forces from two or more services. These commands, such as the North American Air Defense Command, the European Command, the Strike Command, and the Strategic Air Command, more directly reflected the missions and purposes of the military establishment than did the services organized simply in terms of the element in which they operated (land, sea, air, or sea-land). The civilian leaders of the services thus suffered a decline in prestige and power. The military leaders of the services avoided this decline in some degree through their participation in the central military staff organization (in the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Recurring in all countries is the issue of having a single military chief of staff or a chiefs of staff committee, and the problem of dividing responsibilities between the central military staff and the service staffs. The relations between the civilian secretary in charge of the military establishment and his civilian associates and subordinates, on the one hand, and the central military staff organization, on the other, raise other major organizational issues.

Structure—the budget

There are two major types of budgetary issues: substantive and procedural. Substantive issues concern the allocation of funds among different programs, weapons, and services. They are thus directly linked to program and force decisions on strategic programs. It is quite possible that decisions on strategic programs may be made only in the context of the budgetary process. In this event, no practical distinction exists between the strategic decision and the structural one. In other instances, however, decisions may be made to develop or to maintain certain types of forces and strategic programs, quite apart from the decisions on how much money should be devoted to those forces. Just as a decision to maintain a certain number of divisions may imply certain manpower decisions, so also it may imply certain budgetary decisions. Neither the manpower nor the budgetary decisions, however, are guaranteed as a result of the force-level decision. Indeed, they may be made by a substantially different group of people at a different time and with significantly different perspectives and priorities.

Procedural issues concern the nature and structure of the budget and the budgetary process. A major change in American military policy under the Kennedy administration was the reorganization of the budget in terms of major purposes or functions (that is, the output categories of the military establishment) rather than simply in terms of organizational categories (the services) or input categories (for example, men, hardware, soft goods). As a result of this change, it became possible to evaluate the costs of the major strategic programs. Since the budget is the one place where military activities are expressed in a common denominator that makes them comparable to civilian activities, it is also the place where, typically, the civilian leaders of the defense establishment play a major role. Civilian control often is identified with budgetary control.

The making of military policy

In almost all countries the executive branch plays a decisive role in the formulation of military policy. In constitutional democracies, the predominance of the executive is particularly marked with respect to strategy, less so with respect to structure. In the United States, Congress has constitutional authority to determine the size and composition of the armed forces and to declare war. In actuality, however, after World War n, the effective decisions both on strategic programs and on the uses of force have been made by the president acting through and in consultation with the National Security Council, the civilian leadership of the State and Defense departments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, at times, selected congressional leaders. Congressional groups can exert pressure on the executive decision makers, but they are seldom in a position to make decisions on strategy themselves. In effect, like Bagehot’s queen, they have “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” On the structural side of military policy, on the other hand, Congress retains an important role in the decision-making process. Typically, the executive presents its recommendations to Congress on legislation dealing with manpower, personnel, organization, pay, procurement, and reserve forces. Congress and its Armed Services Committees usually amend and at times even reject these executive proposals. With respect to the budget, Congress rarely makes any significant reductions in executive requests for funds. In many cases, Congress appropriates more money than the presi-dent requested for Such particularly favored pro-grams as the National Guard, bomber and missile procurement, and the Marine Corps. The president, however, can, and on occasion does, refuse to spend these extra funds. In general, Congress tends to be much more sympathetic to the requests of the military services than the top civilian leadership of the executive branch.

In parliamentary democracies, the legislature typically has much less control over military policy than does the United States Congress. Strategic and structural policies are determined by the cabinet in consultation with civil servants and military chiefs and are more or less automatically ratified by the legislature. In Great Britain the principal public debate on military policy occurs in connection with the approval of the defense estimates by Parliament, This is normally preceded by the issuance of a white paper which sets forth the government’s over-all defense policies and strategy. At times in Great Britain, the presence of retired military officers in the House of Lords stimulates informed and caustic debates on military policy in that chamber.

Strategic programs and structural issues typically have fairly restricted publics; in some cases almost no groups outside of official government agencies play a significant role in the policy-making process. In the United States public opinion at large has been very favorably disposed toward the maintenance of large military forces; in other constitutional democracies the pattern of opinion is less clear, and the perception of serious conflicts between increased military spending and increased spending for social welfare programs often produces a more hostile attitude toward the former. In contrast to strategic programs, decisions on the use of force have obvious implications for the entire society. Consequently, in constitutional democracies public opinion has a much greater influence on such issues. In particular, efforts to initiate the use of force or to carry on the prolonged use of force for limited objectives overseas may arouse substantial opposition among broad groups in the population. This was true in France with respect to the Indochinese and Algerian wars, in Great Britain over Suez, and in the United States with respect to the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. In such situations, a government may be caught between the realities of foreign politics and the pressures of domestic politics and thus be severely restricted in its ability to carry out a consistent policy.

In totalitarian states military policy is typically a major and continuing preoccupation of the top political leadership. In Nazi Germany the principal strategic decisions were made by Hitler and his immediate associates, frequently against the advice of, and over the opposition of, the principal professional military chiefs. In communist states the top leaders of the party shape military policy; often they have had considerable experience themselves in the conduct of military operations. In all totalitarian states ideological considerations are a major influence on military policy; these frequently run counter to the judgments of the professional military; and consequently the tension between “political” and “military” approaches is frequently more intense than it is in constitutional states. Ideologically oriented political leaders are often ready to pursue more expansionist or “adventurist” military policies than their more conservative professional military men are willing to support. Totalitarian political leaders also typically have more varied and more forceful means of asserting their authority over their military forces than do the political leaders of constitutional states.

In both modern constitutional states and in totalitarian states the dominant consideration in military policy is typically the need of the state in relation to other states. However, in many societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, domestic considerations and needs have a much more important influence on strategy and structure. Often the military forces play a key role in domestic politics; the size of the armed forces reflects their domestic political strength more than their external military function. Indeed, in many such states the armies, although large in terms of the governmental budget, seldom, if ever, engage in external warfare. Another important influence on military policy in these states comes from the more-developed countries which furnish military assistance and advice. In many cases these influences and the desire to appear “advanced” may lead a small and backward state to adopt a military policy more appropriate for a large and industrialized power. External support for the military forces of a state, of course, also tends to make those forces less dependent upon the political system of their own country and thus may well encourage tendencies toward “praetorianism.”

Samuel P. Huntington

[See alsoCivil–military relations; Foreign policy; Militarism; Military; National security; Public policy; Strategy. Other relevant material may be found underInternational relations; War].


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